David Galloreese

We’re willing to bet that, in the last few weeks, you’ve received at least one LinkedIn connection request from someone you don’t know. While the first of these may catch you off guard (and trigger a range of emotions), chances are you’ve been guilty of aspirational inviting too. While we can admit that most of us have done it, what are we really gaining?  I’d offer that — unless you’re a recruiter yourself, building awareness for your company — it’s not much. If you’re trying to network to find a new job, the real value is focusing on building one authentic connection at a time.

If you’ve received career advice in the past twenty years, you’ve been told to go network — and with good reason. For five years running, Right Management has identified networking as the top source of employment, and we listed it ourselves among our Five Resolutions to Find a Job You’ll Love in 2014. While this advice is crucial to the job search, if you don’t have instructions on how to use it (or a stocked Rolodex), then it’s been reduced to a buzzword with a high potential for misuse (i.e. Sending 100 LinkedIn requests to people you’ve never met). “Go network!” gets thrown around so much and with so little substance that it starts to sound like someone cheering on their wireless router rather than useful career advice.

We’re here to give some teeth to this advice. If you don’t have a host of hiring managers in your inner circle (or you have a host of hiring managers that have ignored your invitation to connect), this guide is for you. Let’s break the habit of passive “networking” and start forming authentic connections.

Networking, defined

While the desired outcome of networking may be finding a new job, the process of networking truly rests in creating meaningful connections and strengthening them over time. To successfully network, you have to build and maintain relationships — not expect that a single cold call or strategically sent resume will result in an interview. You want to take your network with you beyond just this one job search, and that takes real nurturing.

That’s not to say you won’t go beyond your existing network or your comfort zone. A willingness to reach out to 2nd and 3rd degree connections is still essential, but that initial contact is only the beginning. Throughout the networking process, you will ask for (and give) advice, seek introductions (and make some yourself), write countless Thank You’s, exercise your patience, and risk your ego: You’ll have to treat your connections as humans rather than means to an end, and give just as good as you get. Lay the first plank with a coffee, phone call, or email, and build one relationship at a time.  Full disclosure: You will have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable to make the most out of your networking experience.

You do have a network

Networkers who resort to blindly sending out resumes or connecting with a few hundred strangers often act out of an assumption that they “don’t really have a network” — or a concern that they don’t know anyone in their desired field or company. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a network is as well as a underestimation of who the people you know can connect you to. From your family to your friends to past co-workers, co-eds, and co-Starbucks regulars, your network includes everyone you’ve ever spoken with – some connections are just stronger than others. Your job is just to start the strengthening process: Since you are networking, focus on areas that can help inform your search.

Real relationships, real results

In informational interviews, phone calls, or coffee chats, most people will be happy to talk about their own career path and give advice to someone looking to follow it, but anything beyond that is typically reserved for more substantial relationships. When looking at your history with friends or significant others, chances are those relationships formed out of a common bond and emotional connection.  The same should be true of the relationship with those you’re networking with, so be prepared for chemistry to be there…or not.

In our version of networking, the goal is to turn acquaintances, loose connections, and even strangers into real relationships with real staying power. Finding shared interests can be a jumping off point for doing just that. If you don’t have a list of your ideal CEO’s hobbies, looking to clubs and teams you’re already interested in can be far more beneficial than relying on industry mixers or online networks. Building up relationships that already have a foundation will prove a more solid approach than going for small talk or schmoozing: You now have a good excuse for going on that rafting trip or to that dinner party with friends.

Start with one

If your idea of networking is quadrupling your social network or finding generic contact info for hiring departments, then it sounds like you not only have time to dedicate to that hobby of yours, but you also have a lack of focus. When you think of the people you know that would do you a favor without hesitation, chances are you have a strong and long-lasting relationship with them. Are you confident that an acquaintance would do you a favor without hesitation? If you cast too wide a net when you start to network, you’ll only have time to make superficial connections (i.e. not favor-able) at best.

To get to where you want to be, you’ll need to foster these relationships like you would a friendship, one-on-one, and one-by-one. It will take time, but bring better results. And don’t forget your role in the relationship: When asking for advice or introductions, you may be asked to provide the same.

Ready…Set…Go online?

Online connectionsWe’ve talked about how to approach networking, but the question remains who you’re going to approach. While your existing network is the best place to start your relationship building, there are likely a few degrees of separation between those you already know and those you want to know. Sites like LinkedIn can help you identify who those people are, but don’t invite them to connect just yet! …At least not online. Start building an authentic connection with them from the outset by having someone you know put you in touch. Then remember that you’re connecting with a real person with real interests who you really don’t know well yet, and start the real work of networking from there.

Photo credit: Garfield Anderssen